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Television is a Social Event Device, and There’s the Rub

13/08/2013

One of the hardest parts about bringing interactivity to the television is not so much getting it on the internet. It’s getting an idea on what exactly TV apps should do.

The graveyard for ‘interactive’ television devices is a very large place, and there’s new residents happening every day. It’s not just third party, flash-in-the-pan manufacturers, either. Some of the tombstones have some pretty big names on them. Why the ongoing tragedy?

The sorrow of it all stems from the fact that the way people interact with a television is so much different than how they interact with mobile devices. Slapping an Android computer on a TV with a revved up tablet UI is not going to work well, no matter what shape you make the box. The problem is that the TV is a fundamentally different product and experience. It’s a social event device.

What do I mean by that? In today’s world, the television is used to share experiences with more than one person. If just one person were going to consume media that would normally be on a television, they would likely do it with another device like a tablet, laptop or phone. We invite friends to watch media on TV together.

This is the big sticking point. The current batch of applications on mobile operating systems are fundamentally designed for interaction with only one person per device. Angry birds? Single user. Hootsuite? Single user. Foursquare? Single user. Their social aspect is derived through the sharing of information across networks to someone else’s device. They are not designed for sharing with others on the same device. The social aspects of sharing a television event on Facebook with the same people who are in the same room as you, seems somehow redundant. Perhaps sharing with others who aren’t in attendance would make this seem useful but that’s just a feint, isn’t it?

The awkwardness of the ‘social’ app issue could easily be distilled down to when there are many sharing one device experience, it’s no longer an ‘I’ event, it’s a ‘We’ event. For whatever the app is doing, everyone is essentially doing it and if something changes, everyone has some sort of hand in the operation (assuming you have courteous friends). Thus, either there are an army of personal accounts invading the device or there is just one person’s account. Redundancy or awkward conformity are in store.

The second aspect that’s been overlooked is that whatever account that your mobile devices are run through contains a lot of information about you, and maybe some information that’s best left within the safety of password-protection. A quick test of this is taking a stroll through your friend’s mobile phone. The experience turns out to be pretty much uncomfortably voyeuristic. The details saved and the personalization of said device is a deep, deep window into the inner workings of a device’s owner. It’ll become uncomfortable to share a lot of these profile details with others. Even relatively benign shopping lists could cause some to blush if shared with the wrong people.

We have different personas – or ‘accounts’, if you will – a public one and a private one. Truly social event devices like televisions need to be ready to handle the line we set between them. This asks an interesting question: do we then have to individually go into every aspect and assign what can be shared and what cannot, a la Google Circles or do we have second, sharable proxies that are neutered for public browsing? Will they be connected somehow?

With both of these aspects in mind, the biggest issue is that the standard apps available for tablets and phones just don’t work for the social aspects of TV viewing. There will have to be a complete set of brand new apps invented to truly capture the utility and the desire to have this capability on televisions. This is where the excitement should build for what would really turn out to be a completely new market for applications where a sort of real-time social app is born. Instead of being all ‘web 2.0’ on separate devices, groups could have that same interaction through one large device in one location. Or perhaps something even more out on the horizon.

It’s time for manufacturers and programmers to see that this change needs to happen, if they’re going to want to keep playing in this space. From user interfaces that are actually designed for the sort of environment TVs are used to the more mundane aspects of creating a sort of sharing profile that has a tuned environment that’s safe to use where others can browse.

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